What to Expect When Invited to a Jewish Wedding

-Judaism is divided into three major denominations: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. But despite the differences amongst the denominations, Jewish wedding traditions are, for the most part, consistent.

-Upon becoming engaged, Jewish couples generally meet with a rabbi to be advised on the institution of marriage and to select a wedding date. (The Jewish calendar is lunar; therefore holiday dates vary from year to year vis-à-vis the solar-based Gregorian calendar which is used in much of the Western/Christian World, and Jewish weddings cannot take place on Jewish holidays. Jewish weddings also do not occur on the Sabbath [sundown Friday to sundown Saturday]. Because of the five-day workweek and Sabbath restrictions, most Jewish weddings occur on Saturday nights, at least ninety minutes after sunset, and on Sundays. And in the case of a death in the immediate family, weddings are postponed for at least 30 days after the burial).

-Wedding invitations are generally issued by the couple and/or by both sets of parents. Invitations are usually two-sided like an open book, the left side written in Hebrew, and the right side in the English translation thereof. Invitations generally do not “request the presence of” guests; instead, guests are requested to “dance at…” or to “share in the joy of….” It is not uncommon for the wording of an invitation to include Biblical text. And consistent with the Jewish tradition of giving to the poor during times of personal joy, many couples request on a card enclosed with the invitation that in lieu of gifts to the couple, donations should be made to charitable organizations, the organizations sometimes specified or suggested.

Wedding invitations sometimes indicate two different start-times: The first time listed refers to the “kabbalat panim” (See below), during which the bride and groom, in separate quarters, greet their guests. The second start-time refers to the actual wedding ceremony. (When only one time is listed, it refers to the actual ceremony. Promptness is required when only one time is listed).

-The dress code of guests—Jewish or otherwise—depends upon the denomination of the couple and their degree of religiosity. Women attending an Orthodox wedding should wear dresses or skirts without slits and extend beyond the knees; sleeves should either be long or extend beyond the elbows; plain, opaque stockings must be worn—bare legs are unacceptable, and nude nylons are considered in very poor taste; dresses or tops should cover the collarbone and the nape of the neck; married women and formerly married women should cover their hair (unmarried women may expose their hair); colors should be understated—not too bright or lustrous. And white dresses should be avoided as they detract from the bride, who will be dressed in white. A gentleman, married or single, Jew or gentile, should wear a “yarmulke,” also called a “kippot,” (a skull cap worn by Orthodox, Conservative, and some Reform Jews during prayer and religious study) and a suit and tie. At some Orthodox weddings, men and women may be required to sit separately.

Unlike the very strict Orthodox dress code and the very liberal Reform dress code, the correct dress code for Conservative wedding is best determined on a case-by-case basis. Women attending a Conservative wedding may or may not be required to cover their hair; wear nylon stockings or tights; or wear tops or dresses that cover the nape of the neck and the collarbone. Dresses and skirts should extend beyond the knees. White is reserved for the bride. Guidance on attired should be sought from the invitation, the wedding website, the location and time of day of the wedding, the synagogue or temple where the wedding will take place, and friends of the families of the couple. Men should wear suits and ties. Yarmulkes may or may not be required. When required, there will be yarmulkes available at the wedding venue.

The dress code for Reform weddings is basically consistent with that of Western weddings: The dress code, typically specified on the invitation, is determined more by the nature of the wedding than by religion. For a casual wedding, casual clothing is appropriate; for a formal wedding, formal clothing is required. The prudent female guest, however, would wear a garment with components—such as a bolero jacket or shawl—that can conceal (for the ceremony) then be removed for the reception. White dresses should be avoided since the bride is likely to wear white. When yarmulkes are required at Reform weddings, they are usually made available at the wedding venue.

[ Of course, a man of a religious or cultural tradition that requires the wearing of a headdress (such as a turban) is not required to remove his headdress in order to don a yarmulke. A gentleman who wears a hat as part of fashion rather than for religious reasons, however, should remove his hat—as would be the case when entering a Christian place of worship—but don the yarmulke].

-Cash gifts are acceptable wedding gifts in Jewish culture. But when wedding registries have been established, attempts should be made to purchase items from the registry.

-Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement,” is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar: The day is observed with all-day fasting, intense prayer, and asking God for the forgiveness of sins. The Jewish wedding is viewed as a personal Yom Kippur and is, as such, one of the holiest days in a person’s life. On their wedding day, the bride (“kallah”) and groom (“chatan”) are forgiven of all their past sins as they merge into one, new soul. Inspired by Yom Kippur, the bride and groom fast from dawn on their wedding day until the completion of the ceremony. And the groom wears a traditional “kittel,” the white robe worn on Yom Kippur. [Sephardic Jews do not fast or wear the kittel on their wedding day]. The bride also wears white to symbolize that she has undergone a “mikvah” (a ritual bath to cleanse and purify oneself) in preparation for the wedding.

-In order to build anticipation for the wedding day, the bride and groom traditionally do not see each other during the week leading up to the wedding. So on the wedding day, prior to the wedding ceremony, the bride and groom greet guests separately in a tradition known as “kabbalat panim.” The bride is seated, queen-like, upon a throne to receive her guests; while the groom, king-like, is surrounded by his guests, who toast him and entertain him with song. This interaction between groom and guests is called a “tisch.” Some brides also have a tisch.

-(To assist guests, attendants are oftentimes provided with a wedding booklet or program which explains various elements of the wedding; includes a copy of the invitation and ketuba [See below]; and a note from the couple, for example).

-In the Ashkenazi (descended from Eastern European Jews) tradition, the mother of the bride and the mother of the groom stand together and break a plate, symbolic of the seriousness of the commitment of marriage and the fact that a relationship, once broken, can never be fully restored.

-The “ketuba” is a marriage document, written in Aramaic, which outlines the groom’s responsibilities to and for his bride. (In ancient times, the groom would provide a bride-price which served to provide financial security to his wife in the event of death or divorce). Although the custom of the ketuba has no legal significance today, its tradition survives. It is signed by the groom and two witnesses. (Since the 1970s, with the increased consciousness for women’s equality and rights, parallel declarations of commitment are oftentimes singed by both the groom and bride).

-After the signing of the ketuba by the groom, the rabbi and both fathers lead a procession of the bridegroom and male guests into the bride’s chamber for the “badekan” (veiling) ceremony: The groom approaches the bride, seated upon her throne, and places the veil over her face. (The badekan tradition is believed to have derived from the Biblical account of Jacob, who after working for seven years to marry Rachel, found out after the wedding that he had unknowingly married her older, blind sister Leah, whose identity had been concealed under a heavy veil by her father).

-Once the veiling ceremony has taken place, the wedding ceremony is ready to begin. Grandparents are seated first.

-The actual wedding ceremony takes place under the “chuppah,” a canopy supported by four posts, open on all sides. The chuppah represents the home that the couple will build together. Its four open sides suggest the future unconditional hospitality of the couple and is informed by the Biblical description of the open-sided tent-home of Abraham and Sarah. (The open tent also allows for great photo-ops!) Other authorities suggest that the chuppah’s origins are with the canopied litter which the bride would traditionally occupy during the procession to the wedding venue.

-Ashkenazi Jews conduct the chuppah ceremony at night under the stars as a symbolic reminder of the blessing bestowed by God upon Abraham that his children “shall be as the stars of the heavens.” (Genesis 15: 5). [Sephardi Jews typically conduct the chuppah ceremony indoors].

-En route to the chuppah, the bride follows the groom, each accompanied by his/her parents. (The order of the procession, including rabbi and cantor—when the wedding takes place outside a temple or synagogue—is determined by local custom).

-Just before arriving at the chuppah, the bride’s parents stop, raise her veil, kiss her, then take their seats. The bride then takes three steps towards the chuppah on her own, symbolizing that the marriage is of her free will. The groom then meets the bride and escorts into the chuppah. (Once under the wedding canopy, the bride of the Ashkenazi tradition encircles the groom seven times, symbolizing the seven “days” used by God to create the world.  The seven revolutions also symbolize the home the bride and groom will create together). The bride then sits next to the groom, on his right-hand side.

-[ In the Sephardi tradition, the groom then says the blessing “She’hecheyanu” over a new “tallit” (prayer shawl), the blessing also meant for his marriage. The blessed tallit is then held by four males over the head of the bride and groom, chuppa-like ].

-The Ashkenzi custom is that the bride and groom wear no jewelry while under the chuppah, symbolizing their desire not to be enslaved by material possessions.

-In Jewish tradition, the marriage becomes official when the groom gives the bride something of value. In ancient times, it would typically be a coin of gold. Today, it is a ring. The ring must be owned by the groom and be of pure gold, without embellishment of gems or stones. (It may be engraved on the inside). Only one ring—given to the bride by the groom—is required by Jewish law and tradition. Some traditional rabbis refuse to officiate two-ring ceremonies. But some liberal rabbis allow the bride to give the groom a ring as a “gift,” not as the binding element of the ceremony. When giving the ring, the groom recites, after the rabbi, “Behold, thou art consecrated to me with this ring, according to the law of Moses and Israel.” The groom then places the ring onto the forefinger of the bride’s right hand.

-During the “Bedeken” ceremony, which is oftentimes conducted in Hebrew and English, the rabbi reads the “ketuba” (the marriage contract), and the couple drinks from a glass of wine. Wine is a symbol of joy in Jewish tradition and is associated with “kiddush,” a blessing recited over a cup of wine on the Sabbath or on a festival. (Sephardi rabbis usually wrap the couple in a prayer shawl, representing their union into oneness). The reading of the ketuba serves as the juncture between the first and second parts of the ceremony: the “kiddushin” (betrothal) and the “nissuin” (marriage).

-The “Seven Blessings” (“Sheva Brachot”) are recited over a second glass of wine. The underlying theme of the blessings is the omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence of God. The seven blessings are recited by the rabbi and/or persons whom the families of the bride and groom wish to honor. At the conclusion of the Seven Blessings, the bride and groom drink wine from second glass of wine.

-At the end of the Seven Blessings ceremony, the best man places the wine glass, which has been wrapped in fabric or enclosed in a cloth bag, under the right foot of the groom. The groom then smashes the glass with his foot. (The smashing of the glass is said to symbolize the Jewish people sadness over the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., and to affirm Jewish identity). The rabbi then declares the couple “man and wife,” and kisses are exchanged. Once the glass has been shattered, guests shout “mazel tov!” (which means “good luck!”), clap, embrace, and sing as the couple departs the chuppah for the “yichud.”

-The “yichud” is the moment of brief seclusion (which takes place in a special room), where the couple can spend a few moments alone before rejoining their families and friends. When couples have fasted prior to the wedding, they are traditionally provided with their favorite foods during the yichud. Chicken soup is the traditional yichud food.

-Because of the yichud, it is unlikely that a Jewish wedding will have a receiving line. Instead, the couple will be introduced as “husband and wife” after emerging from the yichud and joining their guests. Traditionally, they are greeted with a toast and a shower of rice.

-Jewish wedding receptions are lively events, with much music and dancing. Most dancing is communal, rather than intimate or for couples. A “hora” (a traditional dance of celebration) is performed. The hora most widely known is the one in which the bride and groom, while seated on chairs, are lifted onto the shoulders of their guests and danced around the room. Another popular hora is for the bride and groom to whirl around each other holding opposite ends of a handkerchief. At very traditional weddings, there are separate dance-circles for men and women, sometimes divided by a “mehitzvah,” a curtain or some other divider.

-Meals at Jewish weddings are kosher or kosher-style, prepared within the laws as outlined in the Torah. Therefore, there will be no mixing of meat and dairy; shellfish will not be served; and pork is prohibited.

-The festive meal (“seudah”) begins with a blessing over a wedding “chellah,” a large, braided, egg-rich bread. The bride and groom then break the chellah into pieces, giving a portion to each table. The giving of the bread also allows the newlyweds to introduce themselves to guests.

-Alcohol is traditionally served at Jewish weddings.

-At the end of the meal, “Birkat Hamazon” ([the saying of] “Grace after Meals”) is recited, and the “Sheva Brachot” is repeated.

-The final tradition of the wedding reception is the “cup blessing,” during which two glasses of wine are poured into a third glass from which the bride and groom drink.

-During the week following the wedding, it is customary for friends and family to host festive meals in honor of the bride and groom. These meals are also called “Sheva Brachot” because of the blessings offered at the conclusion of each of these meals. (When both the bride and groom are being married for a second time, the Sheva Brachot is only recited at the end of the meal on the wedding night).

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